NY-11 Special: Republicans Well-Positioned to Hold One of Nation’s Most Distinctive Districts

But Democrats get a new target via retirement


Could the indictment of former Rep. Michael Grimm (R, NY-11) have worked out any better for national Republicans? Probably not.

That may seem like an odd observation to make, but follow along.

Despite winning reelection in 2012, an ethical cloud was hanging over Grimm, to the point where Democratic and Republican operatives wondered if, and when, the hammer would drop on the incumbent. The blow finally landed in late April 2014, when Grimm was indicted on federal fraud and other charges dating back to before Grimm won his seat.

While no party would welcome the indictment of a sitting member, the development did allow national Republicans to cut bait on Grimm. His was a defeat they could afford, because it was clear the GOP would retain the House. Even if Grimm lost, Republicans could just find a better, non-indicted candidate and try to win the seat back in 2016.

But Grimm confounded national Democrats, who spent heavily to defeat him, by waltzing to reelection in his district, which contains all of Staten Island and a small piece of Brooklyn. Then he agreed to plead guilty in his case and decided to step aside.

To recap, national Republicans did not have to lift a (financial) finger to win a seat with an indicted incumbent in 2014, and now that incumbent has voluntarily left the seat, paving the way for a special election. Oh, and by the way, that special election will be waged in the most conservative district in the city, possibly while a battle is raging between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) and the city’s police forces. That’s also good for the Republicans (more below).

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) has not yet set a date for a special election and has wide discretion in doing so. There will be no primary: Instead, the parties choose the candidates. Local Republicans are coalescing around Dan Donovan (R), the Richmond County (Staten Island) district attorney, who it appears can have the party’s nomination if he wants it (and all indications are that he does).

Donovan is very popular on Staten Island. For instance, Donovan ran statewide for attorney general in 2010 against Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat just elected to his second term last year. He lost statewide, 56% to 43%. But Donovan won 65% on Staten Island.

Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (R) is another possibility, and some district Republicans are grumbling that party leaders seem to be steamrolling the field for Donovan.

If nominated, Donovan will draw outsized national attention to the special election because of his role in the Eric Garner case. Garner, a black man, died while being choked by police after an officer confronted him over a minor infraction. It was a case of police brutality that drew condemnation from observers on both the left and right. Despite video showing an officer choking Garner, who very clearly posed no threat to officers, a grand jury declined to indict the officer, which to critics is a mark against the prosecutor, Donovan.

The Garner case is part of a larger battle between the liberal de Blasio and the police department, the details of which need not be rehashed here. The key point is that Donovan’s role in the Garner matter would be a big liability if he were running elsewhere in the city, but it might not be in this district, which dislikes the mayor.

Even though de Blasio won by nearly 50 points citywide in his 2013 victory, his Republican opponent, Joe Lhota, won Staten Island by nearly 10 points. Some residents’ cars now sport “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Joe Lhota” bumper stickers. If the race turns into a contest over who can best stick it to the mayor, Donovan — or any other Republican — will get a big boost.

Democrats do not yet have an obvious candidate. Since losing to Grimm in 2010, former Rep. Michael McMahon (D) has often flirted with another run, but he has not pulled the trigger. Others, including a pair of state legislators, are also considering the race. A sure loser would be 2014 candidate Domenic Recchia (D), who is not from Staten Island and ran a much-mocked challenge to Grimm. Close to three-quarters of the votes in the last two congressional elections held in the district have come from Staten Island, so the island dominates the district’s politics (Recchia won the Brooklyn part of the district but lost to Grimm by double digits).

One can argue, as David Marcus does convincingly in a piece for National Review, that making Donovan the face of the GOP in New York City is not great for the party nationally. But that’s a separate issue from whether Donovan or another Republican would be favored to win this particular race.

If the race hinges on national issues, the Republicans will also likely have an edge. While Obama won the district in 2012, John McCain won it in 2008, and the special election electorate will probably look more like the 2014 midterm electorate that reelected the indicted Grimm than the 2012, Hurricane Sandy-drenched one that narrowly backed the president (and Grimm at the same time). The same political dynamic that guided the midterm results — there is a Democrat in the White House and his approval rating is lower than his disapproval rating — is still operative today, though President Obama’s numbers are rebounding to some degree.

With all that in mind, we’re moving the rating in NY-11 for both the upcoming special election and the November 2016 race from Leans Republican to Likely Republican.

A special election will focus even more national attention on NY-11, which is merited because the district is one of the most interesting in the country. Compared to similar districts nationally, it is a true outlier.

By square miles (65.8), NY-11 is the 19th-smallest congressional district in the country. To put that in perspective, NY-11 is about the size of the District of Columbia, which is 61.1 square miles.

The country’s smallest, most densely populated districts are very Democratic: President Obama won an average of 68.3% of the vote in the 100 smallest districts in 2012, and Democratic members hold 87 of these 100 districts. Meanwhile, Republicans hold 80 of the 100 largest districts, and Mitt Romney won an average of 56.4% of the vote in these districts. This disparity points to the major urban-rural split in American politics, and also to the overconcentration of Democratic voters in very Democratic, urban districts that creates a natural Republican edge in the House.

NY-11 is so distinct because, if one drills down to the 40 smallest House districts, it’s the only one won by a Republican in 2014.

So what makes this district so different than its other urban counterparts?

About two-thirds of the district’s population lives in Richmond County (Staten Island), which is more conservative than the rest of New York City. The Almanac of American Politics notes that Staten Islanders, “fed up with the city’s high income taxes and social programs,” voted to secede from the city in 1993. The state legislature never acted on the voters’ request. Staten Island is also New York’s whitest borough: It has the nation’s highest concentration of residents with Italian ancestry in the country, according to the Almanac.

Another, more subtle point: The district does not have the kind of mass transit available in other parts of the city: There’s just a single commuter rail line on the island, and the Brooklyn parts of the district are largely “nowhere near a subway stop and thus impervious to the gentrification spreading across Brooklyn,” notes the Almanac. A concentration of mass transit generally means a place has a higher population density and thus is more Democratic. This district is an exception in terms of density, but perhaps its relative isolation helps explain why it has remained so politically different from the rest of the city.

As always, a small caveat is in order when discussing any special election. History tells us that it will not necessarily be predictive of the 2016 election results, even though the victor will spin it that way. For instance, Democrats won three noteworthy special House elections prior to the 2010 election. Those who thought those races might be predictive of the future would have been proven wrong by the 63-seat GOP gain in November 2010.

Caution is especially warranted when trying to glean national lessons from the results in a district that is among the most peculiar in the country.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes

A new swing seat up for grabs

North of New York City, Republicans got an unwelcome surprise when Rep. Chris Gibson (R, NY-19) announced he would not be running for reelection in 2016. This open seat should be one of the most attractive Democratic pickup opportunities in the country, and as an open seat it begins as a Toss-up.

Gibson, one of the least conservative members of the GOP caucus, won a decisive, 30-point victory over self-funding venture capitalist Sean Eldridge (D) in November. Eldridge’s disastrous candidacy represents a running joke on the Republican side even though his money frightened GOP operatives for much of the cycle. Snickers about the Eldridge bust resurfaced after the election when his husband, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, announced changes to the liberal magazine he owns, The New Republic. Many of the magazine’s veteran staffers angrily quit, causing a media dustup amongst the tiny fraction of Americans concerned with such things.

President Obama won the district 52%-46% in 2012, slightly better than his national performance and about the same as what he received in NY-11. So why is NY-19 a Toss-up, and NY-11 Likely Republican?

First of all, come November 2016 NY-11 will almost certainly have an incumbent who will enjoy all the advantages holding office provides. For the unique reasons stated above, we think the GOP has an edge in the special election. Unlike NY-11, NY-19 is not part of New York City, and thus is far less influenced by the city’s internal politics (even though about half of the district’s residents live in the NYC media market). That’s probably good for the Democrats, and an open-seat election might be heavily influenced by the presidential election. This is definitely a winnable district for the Democratic presidential nominee, and thus a good Democratic House nominee should be able to win it, too.

A cavalcade of local and state officials on both sides are being mentioned for the vacancy. If Democrats are to make significant inroads in the House in 2016 — let alone flip the 30 seats required to retake the chamber — this is a must-win seat.

A quick note on the 114th Congress

On Nov. 4, 2014, the Republicans won 247 seats, which was the most House seats they had won in any House election since 1928. However, when Congress opened on Tuesday, the Republicans had only 246 members because of Grimm’s resignation. That merely ties 1946, when 246 Republicans were elected.

So is this really the GOP’s biggest House win since before the Great Depression? Or does it just tie that record?

It depends on how one counts. For instance, the venerable Vital Statistics on American Politics uses the membership at the start of each Congress. That method would put the Republicans at just 246 seats. The House Historian’s website, meanwhile, goes by the number of seats won on Election Day. So that method means 247.

Because we’re in the elections business, we think we should give a party credit for the number of seats they won on Election Day and not penalize them, from a historical standpoint, for openings that come later. So despite the fact that the GOP currently only has 246 seats, winning 247 seats last November exceeds 1946’s previous high in our eyes.